The dazzling Danish capital and home of Carlsberg; Copenhagen is to weekend trippers what Smørrebrød is to sandwich lovers. Our Scandinavian neighbours are known for several things: breakfast pastries, longboat invasions, simply designed goods, innovative food, and a more relaxed pace of life.
The canals, townhouses and cobbled streets of Copenhagen are a living and breathing ‘how to guide’ for a perfect Nordic existence. Seeing the best of the city is easily achievable in one weekend. Business Insider recently ranked Copenhagen as the world’s 8th most expensive city to live in, but it doesn’t have to cost the Earth to see it.
1. Start with the Rosenborg Castle
Slap bang in the centre of Copenhagen and known locally as Rosenborg Slot; the castle was originally built as a summer home for the Danish Royal family. Over the years has been expanded many times to become one of Copenhagen’s most memorable buildings. Created in the Dutch Renaissance style, the castle has been used as the official home of the Royal family two times.
Inside is a maze of quirky rooms home to the ornate wares of Denmark’s first family. The areas open to tourists span three floors and serve as a good guide to how Denmark became one of Europe’s most powerful states. It’s worth setting aside a good two and a half hours to cover the whole castle. On a warm summer’s day, the grounds are one of the most popular places for Danes to take a break.
Rosenborg is where Denmark’s Crown jewels are housed and there couldn’t be a more fitting home. The regal red stone walls and towering spires are an imposing yet enticing sight from ‘Kongens Have’ — or the Kings Garden — the oldest royal garden in the country. Within the basement of the castle is an enormous collection of the Danish crown’s insignia — a collection of artefacts which make the castle worth a visit in their own right.
Surrounding Rosenborg is a network of buildings established to provide a place for those who serviced the castle to work, eat, and sleep. Changing seasons bring the turn of emerald leaves to shades auburn and hazel, contrasting beautifully against the white brushed wooden window frames. If you don’t fancy going inside the castle then it’s worth seeing the gardens, especially in summer when events and music concerts are held within the castle’s grounds.
Getting there and getting in: Rosenborg Castle is in the centre of Copenhagen and an easy walk from the central railway station or main shopping streets. Adult tickets start from 105 DKK (£11.) The castle is open most days but times vary so it’s worth checking its website. Nearest Metro: Get off at Nørreport and walk for around 5 minutes for the quickest route to the castle.
2. Frederik’s Church
Frederik’s Church proves that not all city centres are created equal. Copenhagen does most things pretty spectacularly but it really excels when it comes to beautiful buildings. If you’re walking between Rosenborg Castle and Christiansborg – the seat of the Danish parliament – then you’ll no doubt stumble across the towering dome of Frederik’s Church. Crowned by the largest dome in Scandinavia – it has a span of 31m – you’d be forgiven for thinking you were looking at the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica; a building which is said to have inspired its design.
Unsurprisingly it’s a popular spot for glamorous Danes to tie-the-knot, and it’s easy to see why; the striking church sits on a peaceful cobbled square near Copenhagen’s glistening waterfront. Make sure you don’t miss the view from the top of the dome – tours are available at 1pm and 3pm on weekdays in the summer months and at the same times on weekends for the rest of the year.
Getting there and getting in: If you’re starting at Rosenborg Castle then you’re about a 10-15 minute walk away, less if you’re on two wheels. There is an entry fee to get in: 35 DKK (£4), but the dome is best viewed from the elegant square it sits on. Nearest Metro: Kongens Nytorv is at the bottom of the square on which the church sits.
3. The Royal Library
The Royal Library is an institution of two vastly contrasting halves. That’s because Copenhagen’s cathedral of literature is housed across two buildings, with a glimmering glass walkway connecting them. On one side of a busy city road is a decadent and historic reading room where Dane’s study literature forming the foundation of their Kingdom. Adjacent is the gloriously modern and beautifully designed main building known as ‘the Black Diamond’. Here 50ft glass windows look out over Copenhagen’s waterfront and heels clack quietly along polished wooden floors.
Unless you’re fluent in Danish then the words within the books resting on dark wooden shelves won’t be of much interest. That aside the library is host to almost every piece of Danish literature to be published and includes the first book published in the language, dating back to 1482.
Crossing from the original building into the new extension is could be described as like travelling in a time-tunnel of Danish architecture. The library’s modern extension was completed in just before the turn of the millennium and owes its name to the polished Italian granite that clads its exterior. But it’s the atrium which is the real spectacle to be marvelled at. Explorers can find the best views from the top floor of the building. Looking down at academics, students and bibliophiles probably isn’t enough to stop vertigo, but for a few short seconds, it’s worth peering over the parapet into the vast space below.
Crossing the harbour offers the best views of ‘the black diamond’, especially at night when it’s lit up with a luminous tangerine glow. Such thought was put into its design that it has the appearance of floating just above the water level. If you really feel like pushing the boat out (literally) you can take a tour through the harbour on one of the boats which helped make Copenhagen such an important city. You’ll find them along the quayside.
Getting there and getting in: Who pays to go into a library? Nobody, that’s who. This cathedral of design and literature won’t cost you krone to get in. However you are meant to be studying to go into the reading rooms (but if you don’t tell then I won’t either). As always opening hours vary throughout the year, it’s worth checking them on the library’s website. There is a good coffee shop and place to store your bag for a small fee too. Nearest metro: Christianshavn St. or Kongens Nytorv are both equidistant at around a 10-minute stroll from the library.
4. Get lost in the winding streets of the old city
Despite being one of Europe’s most influential cities it isn’t hard to find a near-deserted street in Copenhagen. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city’s beating shopping mile – Strøget – Dutch style townhouses tower above cobbled streets and resting bikes. Rainbow painted houses are the bread and butter of Copenhagen and are seen nowhere better than on Magstræde just south of the main commercial centre.
On Magstræde and Snarestræde, the oldest streets in the city, the original cobbles take the tread of locals on their way to bars, shops, and work. The area is the home of Denmark’s culture, indeed it houses the government’s ministry dedicated to it.
Getting there and getting in: It’s completely free to look around. The knack is knowing where to go as it’s tucked away. Most hostels will give you a free map to help find your way around the city, but if you stay at Copenhagen Downtown Hostel then you’re right on the doorstep, more on there later. Nearest Metro: Kongens Nytorv is probably the closest, it’s about 15 minutes away.
5. Sip a freshly brewed coffee by Nyhaven
The harbour of Nyhavn is a lot more peaceful now than in days gone by. Dating back to 1681, the quayside once throbbed with the shouts and laughs of traders from around the world, today it’s an altogether more peaceful affair. At the beginning, middle or end of a long day of pavement treading the harbour is the perfect place to take a seat and watch the world go by. The area has strong literary connections: it’s where Hans Christian Anderson lived and wrong some of his most famous works including ‘The Princess and the Pea’ and ‘The Tinderbox’.
If you’re a set-jetter then Nyhaven is certainly worth a visit. It has been used as a location in several films; most recently the Academy Award winning ‘The Danish Girl’ starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. Director Tom Hooper stated the film owes a debt to the city and its “untouched” city centre. Visit in winter for traditional Christmas markets, or in summer for good food from market stalls dotted around the harbour.
Getting there and getting in: Nyhaven is free to visit but do watch the prices in some of the cafes along the harbourside; Nyhaven attracts tourists from around the globe and with that comes people looking to get as much of their hard-earned cash from them as possible. For a decadent hot chocolate try ‘Baresso’ next to the French Embassy at the land end of the harbour. The popular chain of coffee shops is a favourite with Danes for its cheap prices, bold menu, and comfy places to sit (they play some good music too). Nearest Metro: Kongens Nytorv is the nearest at less than three minutes walk away.
6. Climb to the top of Copenhagen’s golden church
The Church of Our Saviour sits on the same island as the bohemian Christiana commune and offers views across the city. The journey up 400 steep wooden then copper steps to the top of the corkscrew spire has been attracting visitors since it was completed in 1752. The views from the top are incredible but aren’t for the faint-hearted.
On a clear day, it’s possible to see the Øresund Bridge which connects the city with the Swedish city of Malmo. If you’re not fortunate to have the sunshine on your side then it’s still worth a trip to look down on the city as if it were a child’s play toy. Toward the top of the spire, the steps narrow to a point where there’s barely enough room to squeeze past people going in the opposite direction. Think skinny!
Top tip: The steps are lined with shiny copper and when they’re wet they’re very slippery. Keep a firm grip of the handrail; the bruises from slipping down a few wet steps last a long time. I speak from experience… Ouch!
7. Drink like a Viking
Denmark’s most famous export, the Vikings, started the country’s reputation for a good pint. It’s a tradition that Danes have continued to embrace. Copenhagen is home to the Carlsberg brewery where hops have been fermented into an impressive range of beverages since 1847. The brewery has a museum in which bottles from all their products produced for different global markets are on show, but the best bit is you get two free drinks included in the entry price.
The brewery still upholds its time-worn traditions; following the same brewery methods it did in more than 150 years ago. Originally, Carlsberg stored its beer and lager in wooden barrels made on site; today the production process takes place in a sanitised factory where metal machines whirr and men in white coats analyse pH levels. The beer tastes the same but it’s hard to say the same amount of love goes into making it as in days gone by.
Getting there and getting in: To get into the brewery costs 95DKK (£10) but the entry price includes the cost of two drinks of your choice. If you use public transport once during your time in Copenhagen then this should be that time. The brewery is located about an hour’s walk outside the city centre in the Vesterbro neighbourhood. It benefits from good public transport connections too.
Nearest Metro: Pick your allegiance as there is two a similar walking distance away. Both Valby and Enghve S-train stations will leave you around a 10-minute trot from an ice cold drink. There’s also a free shuttle bus put on by the brewery, it’ll drop you right at the door, but where is the adventure in that?
8. Eat like a Viking
Copenhagen is the world’s kitchen when it comes to innovative new cuisine. Denmark, like all great European countries, is home to people from around the globe. Bosniak, Turkish, Iranian and Scandinavian cuisine is all one the menu. Despite only having one Michelin Star restaurant Copenhagen is a holy grail for foodies. If you’re on a budget there are plenty of places to choose from.
Lonely Planet highly commends the burgers at Cocks and Cows on Gammel Strand. It says: “energetic staff deliver fresh, made-from-scratch burgers that are generous and insanely good.” The American-style venue combines the best of Danish and US cuisine in a chilled out communal setting. From vegan to gut-busting, prices on the extensive menu start from 95DKK (£10). The salsa-laden ‘BBQ Farmer’ free range pork burger is a steal at 109DKK (£12.50).
When to visit
Tempted? It’s easy to see why. Copenhagen is a solid choice for a weekend jaunt any time of year. But for the best Danish experience make sure you’re there for the biggest party of the year – J-Day. The biggest party of the year happens on the first Friday in November when the local Carlsberg brewery begins to sell its special Christmas beer ‘Julebryg’.
Locals flock to the bars for 9pm when the first pints are sold and promptly drunk to the sound of merry delivery workers singing and throwing fake snow. Dane’s will tell you the brew is the best in the world, in reality, it’s like Carlsberg laced with a hint of liquorice. Legend says that shout it snow on J-Day then Christmas in Denmark has begun. You can get your hands on some pretty cool merchandise too…
Getting there, getting around and getting on.
Ryanair fly from London Luton 5 times a day. Prices starting from as low as £7 each way for the hour long flight. Copenhagen Airport is one of Europe’s busiest airports; a recent makeover has made sure it’s fit for even the chicest travellers. A fast and frequent rail connections will get you to the city centre in less than 20 minutes. You can pick up a 24-hour ticket for 65DKK (£7).
The city has a well-developed transport system including buses, trains, boats, and the local’s favourite: a bicycle. If you’re feeling flash there are plenty of taxis, or you can book an Uber to take you most places in the city. Denmark used the Danish Kroner, a currency which offers a moderately good exchange rate with the British Pound with £10 working out at around 86DKK. Prices are similar to those in London.